I’m not sure what’s most visually stunning in this tour: Mount Etna or the fireplace! (That shot above is the kitchen window view. Gulp.) But then there’s Becca’s super intentional style of parenting and innate gratitude for her life, and the views somehow become secondary.
The Garbers are an American family on a military tour that ends this summer, so I’m glad we have the chance to tour their home before they head off on another adventure. Just one look out that kitchen window, and I’m sure it’s going to be incredibly difficult to say goodbye to this space and pace of living with their kids in Southern Italy. Friends, welcome to the Garber home!
Our family started in Boston in 2008 with a blue-eyed, bearded veterinary student and a determined young nurse. Even before we started dating, we knew we’d marry each other….and we were right! We got married in a surprise snowstorm in 2010. Shortly after our wedding, Elliott left for a 12-month deployment with the U.S. Army, an experience that challenged us but also gave our new marriage a unique texture and fortitude.
Now we are the stretched-but-grateful parents of vivacious Lena (three) and curly-haired Gil (one). We also have an opportunistic Maine Coon cat named Siena.
We live in a yellow house on the edge of a cliff in Sicily. Elliott is a veterinarian in the Army, where he cares for military working dogs and runs a vet clinic on base. I’m taking time off from my career as a nurse to stay at home with our children, and in the meantime I’m pursuing my creative side with blogging, knitting, and photography.
After Elliott’s yearlong deployment away from his new bride, the Army gave him his choice of assignment. Starry-eyed, I chose Italy. The rural, quiet beauty of southern Italy appealed to us because of our love for the outdoors and our desire to live a simple life.
We arrived in July 2011 with three-month-old Lena. A few days later, I was looking at photos of potential houses, and I saw one with a spectacular view of Mount Etna, exposed brick, dark wood trim, a rustic fireplace, and a balcony overlooking a green valley. Right outside the front door was a Norman castle from the 12th Century. “I just found our house!” I said.
We signed our contract a few weeks later, but only after an agonizing, cross-cultural, bilingual exchange about our kitchen. Italians typically move their kitchen appliances and cabinetry with them, and so this house had nothing. In the end, we went to IKEA and designed our kitchen with our landlady. Now it’s our favorite room in the house. I’m especially smitten with the above-sink drying rack. We don’t have a dishwasher, so I use that rack all day long. When I design my dream home, I’m going to add this Italian feature to my kitchen.
Honestly, living in this beautiful house hasn’t always been easy. It leaks, it floods, there’s mold, and the parking situation is literally medieval. The electricity for our heating and air conditioning is extremely expensive, so we have learned to use the bare minimum of both.
For all that, though, we love this house. One of my favorite moments of every day is walking into the kitchen in the morning to see Mount Etna sparkling in the sunrise. We can hear sheep and cowbells as shepherds herd their flocks through the valley below. In the winter we read books in front of the fire all weekend. In the summer we open all the windows and put the kids in an inflatable pool on the balcony.
Best of all, our cliff-side home is really in the heart of town. We can open our front door and walk out into the neighborhood, where the cobblestone streets were intended for donkeys instead of our Fiat. In the summer we escape the hot house for a passeggiata (evening walk) to the gelateria; we walk home licking our cones and greeting our neighbors. Every Wednesday I push my stroller to the town market, where I stock up on super-local produce, fresh seafood, marinated artichokes, and the most delicious wine that costs two euros per bottle!
Before Sicily, we lived in a tiny apartment on Capitol Hill in D.C., so it still feels novel to spread out in a three-bedroom house. We brought everything with us and found a way to make it work in the layout of our Sicilian villa. The living room was particularly challenging.
Honestly, the piece of furniture I love most in our house doesn’t even belong to us. It’s the huge table and benches in the dining room. Our landlords told us that the table was custom-made for that room from olive wood. I look for every excuse to fill the seats at that table.
Because we live far from family, our friends here are our family, and we stick together around the holidays. So Christmas and Thanksgiving are always at our house! Some of my favorite memories of Sicily involve conversations, laughter, and good food shared around that beautiful table.
Living overseas with my kids is a dream come true for me because I did the same as a child. My dad worked for an oil company, so I was born in Egypt and lived in Australia, Singapore, Pakistan, India, and Brazil all before I went to college. Those countries gave me flexibility, openness, and memories that influence me every day.
Living overseas as a mom is different than as a child, though. I have come to appreciate two things most of all: the value of community and the beauty of quiet.
Because we are so far from home, and because this military community is so small, we really need our friends. We have learned the importance of showing up consistently week after week at church, book club, a playgroup, etc. Our presence and dedication makes a big difference in whether these communities succeed or fail. “Success” means they bring our friends together to support and invest in each other.
I really learned the value of that when my little sister died in a car accident a year into our assignment here. I went back to the States for a few weeks to grieve with my family, but then I had to come back to life overseas. Having my Sicilian community love me, feed me, and pray for me made such a difference in carrying on with grace while far from home.
We’ve also loved how quiet our life is in Sicily. We feel less distracted here than we did in the States because there are a lot fewer commercial options. If you want to eat out in our town, you can have pasta, pizza, or gelato. If you want to shop, you can go to the pharmacy, bakery, or general store. I love that.
We’ve didn’t bring a TV, and so we all read books all the time. Since moving here, I’ve read an average of 50 books a year. With Lena and Gil, we fill our days with baking, reading, building block towers, and going for walks around town and into the valley.
I love my home when it’s full of people – family from the States, friends for a game night, Elliott’s veterinary staff for our annual Christmas party – it doesn’t matter. We have overnight (or over-week!) visitors every month, and we wish even more would come!
On the flip side, weekends are beautiful here. Sometimes we go on day trips with friends, but generally weekends are life in slow motion. Elliott and I take turns with the kids so the other person can sleep in. We make a big pancake breakfast. We almost always go on some kind of hike – usually with a picnic lunch – into the valley below our house.
During the kids’ nap time in the afternoon, Elliott and I talk, write, and read together. On winter evenings, Elliott and Lena build a fire, and after the kids are in bed we’ll pop popcorn and watch a movie on our laptop in front of the hearth.
When Lena was a few months old, I read a book that changed my life. It’s called “Simplicity Parenting,” and it inspired me to create a home for my children where they can play, create, learn, and sleep in a structured, peaceful environment.
Of course, in the real world, life is anything but structured and peaceful! Our ideal everyday life goes something like this: we’re up around 7am to eat breakfast and send Elliott off to work. Gil naps in the morning, and then both kids nap in the afternoon, which is bliss. We eat dinner when Elliott gets home or soon thereafter, and both kids are in bed by 7:30.
In between, there’s not a lot of structure, but there are a lot of crayons, books, blocks, and free, imaginative play. The kids also “help” me around the house with laundry or washing windows, and we cook together a lot. We plan screen time when I trim their nails, because that is the only way I can get them to sit still!
Every day around lunchtime we get out of the house, whether it’s on a walk to the playground in our town, to run errands on base, or to go exploring with another mom and her kids. I love these adventures the most! We choose a destination – like visiting a nearby town or market – and head out with our passel of kids in search of Italian beauty, delicious food, and some crazy memories.
Our assignment ends this summer, so we’ll move when Lena is three-and-a-half. Sadly, my kids will probably not remember Sicily and our life here.
So I write. I take pictures. I journal. I work hard to tell a story of our family now that will be consistent through all the years of their life, a story where these things are valued: honest books, real food, faithful friendships, big windows, cozy fireplaces, green plants, and open arms. I strive to create a home in which there is peace – with God, with each other, with reality – and an attitude of thankfulness.
That said, these are aspirations! In fact, I’ve been convicted lately about my attitude of entitlement and tendency to whine or complain when I don’t get whatever I feel entitled to receive. So much for peace and thankfulness!
Realizing this has helped me gain some perspective on how blessed I am to live in Sicily, stay at home with my kids, and cultivate hobbies like blogging, knitting, and cooking. It’s easy to lose perspective in the daily slog with little ones, as I’m sure most moms know. I hope that my children will remember me as a joyful person, grateful for so many things.
I love being at home. In my childhood, with the transition from country to country, home was always a stable, familiar place. My siblings and I were homeschooled because we moved so much, and home was a place to learn, grow, thrive, and rest.
I feel the same now. I love being at home with Gil and Lena – love it – even when the days are long and sometimes monotonous. I get great joy out of making our home an inviting, peaceful place, a place where my children can flourish, where visitors feel welcomed, where Elliott and I can rest. I love being there to introduce my children to my favorite things, like dancing to music in the living room, eating fresh bread hot out of the oven, reading picture books in bed together, or watching the sun rise from our balcony after some little person woke up too early. This life is a gift.
I wish someone had told me to make room for people in our lives. I wish I had learned this earlier. I spent too many years keeping up appearances, especially in college, and knew so many people at such a superficial level.
Life with my husband and children, though, has challenged that. I am invested in them, and that requires a complete restructuring of priorities. For our children, the hours we choose to walk more slowly so we can talk, to cook more slowly so we can teach, to read more slowly so we can explain, to live more slowly so we can love – these are investments in life now and life forever.
Equally so, our investments in family, friends, and strangers-becoming-friends will reap rewards both for us and for our children. The Skype dates with aunts and uncles that always seem to happen when the kids get fussy, the frantic cleaning of the guest room sometimes after the guests have arrived, the dinners with friends even with whining kids and half-finished conversations – these decisions show love and prioritize people.
That is the goal of my life: making room – welcoming – people into my heart and home, in Sicily, and wherever life takes us next.
Becca, I found myself nodding vehemently when you wrote “This life is a gift.” Good to remember. Equally moving is your reminder to make room for people. We just can’t live without a community, can we? Thank you for showing us around your lovely Italian life! (And, is that your dryer on the balcony?!)
The story of the family’s kitchen brings back a lot of Europe-specific memories. Every country has a different way of living — in the United States, it’s almost unheard of to take your entire kitchen (built in cupboards, too!) with you to your next home. For those of you living in other parts of the world, what’s the one real estate-related quirk that surprised you the first time you learned of it?